The Learning Lab

The Learning Lab

My consulting partner and dear friend, Nancy Egan, has written a wonderful article on our experience teaching at Harvard this year. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been letting my thoughts percolate as I dealt with more technology glitches than I would wish on my worst enemy. But that’s another story….

Harvard Graduate School of DesignLike Nancy, Harvard wasn’t on my radar when I was growing up in San Francisco. I think one or two of my high-school classmates went to Ivy League colleges, but being middle-class kids, most of us went to a California state college or university, with Cal being the institution of choice. I was planning to teach elementary school, and San Francisco State was one of the top-ten teacher’s colleges in the USA, so I happily enrolled (with tuition of $50 per semester), and over the next four years, I learned to learn.

I’ve told stories about finding my way into the world of architecture (see footnote), and once there, I was hooked. I’ve also told stories about meeting Weld Coxe, who literally changed my life, introducing me to the art and science of marketing professional services. In addition, if it were not for Weld, I wouldn’t have met my future consulting partners, Paul Nakazawa and Nancy Egan. And it is because of Paul that we found ourselves teaching in Executive Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1995 to 2004 and then again this year.

What I love most about teaching is the opportunity to learn, and although I have now taught in many different settings, there is something very special about the ExecEd program at the GSD. First of all, the instructors are allowed to create the content as well as the classroom setting, and from the beginning, we wanted to offer a seminar where professionals could exchange ideas and learn from each other. Second, because each of our courses was taught over several days, we had an opportunity to present new ways of thinking about professional practice and then provide time for the participants to use their own firms as case studies for presentation and review.

But third, and most importantly, the practitioners who come to the courses have wholeheartedly opened themselves to the opportunity for learning and sharing. This year, we had a smaller class size than in the past, but the participants were a remarkable group, and fewer people meant that each one had more time to share. And their stories — well, each one reinforced why we continue to believe that architecture and design really do have the power to create positive change in the world.

Practitioners told us stories about the evolution of their firms over time, with changes in ownership, trials, and tribulations along the way, as well as with their successes. We learned about diverse partnerships and women-owned enterprises, corporate architecture at the highest level of design, and start-up entrepreneurship in New York City.

One practitioner, from New Orleans, had attended our HGSD course in 1998 as the founder of a new practice. This year, he told us about merging with another architectural firm just months before Hurricane Katrina and how they had not only persevered but succeeded in building their firm while also rebuilding their city. It was one of the many remarkable stories that were shared.

As John Seely Brown has said, “Understanding is socially constructed.” We learn through participation, internalizing what we hear through conversations with others. For me, our HGSD Learning Lab enabled learning at the highest level — with personal experience vividly illustrating and reinforcing elements of practice, in a community-based learning environment.

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to teach and to learn, and I look forward to future Learning Labs.

Thank you for reading!

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